John Napolitano, the father of Rescue 2’s John Napolitano, will be the keynote speaker at Windermere’s candlelight service.
In the late hours of Sept. 11, 2001, John Napolitano arrived at the World Trade Center, a scene of utter destruction and chaos.
Fires still burned around the scene of the fallen towers, and smoke and dust surrounded him. The heat and smoke at times felt unbearable. Most heart-wrenching of all was the shrill sound of alarms that echoed across the site. The alarms were attached to each firefighter, and if the firefighter was trapped or stopped moving, the alarm would sound.
“They are piercing alarms,” Napolitano said. “I knew what they were, and I could hear them.”
Napolitano was accompanied by his friend Lenny Crisci. The friends each were searching for someone close to them. Crisci was searching for his brother, John Crisci, a lieutenant with the Haz-Mat 1 unit. Napolitano searched for his son, who shared his name, John Napolitano. The younger Napolitano was part of the Fire Department of the City of New York’s Rescue 2 unit and the Lakeland Fire Department.
The elder Napolitano wanted to get a message to his son. If his son was alive, he wanted him to know his dad was there looking for him. And if he was looking down from heaven, Napolitano wanted his son to know that he loved him.
He saw a wall covered in ash near a triage site. If his son was rescued, Napolitano knew they would bring him to the site, and he would see the message from his father.
He drew these words in the ash:
“Rescue 2. John Napolitano. I’m here and I love you. Dad.”
A SON TO BE PROUD OF
From a young age, John Napolitano seemed to be a bright boy with a big future. His kindergarten teacher showed up at their Brooklyn apartment with books far too complicated for the typical kindergarten student.
“He can read,” she told John and Joann Napolitano, his parents.
As he grew, his success continued. His SAT scores came back remarkably high, and his father figured he would have his pick of colleges.
He still managed to have fun. The family bought a house on Long Island, and his friends knew the Napolitano house was always open to them. They spent countless hours playing in the woods behind his home
At 16, he started out as a junior volunteer in the Lakeland Fire Department. When he began testing to become a firefighter, his father asked him what he was doing and why he didn’t talk about college.
“He was focused toward helping people,” Napolitano said.
His father suggested he attend college while waiting to get an offer to be a firefighter. But his son didn’t want to take someone else’s place in a field he wasn’t going into. If he was to advance his education, he would do it along the lines of fire service.
“Perhaps I can help other firemen become better firemen,” he told his father.
In 1991, he got the call to join FDNY, which he accepted, while still volunteering his time at the Lakeland Fire Department. He held every rank available to him, becoming Lakeland’s youngest fire chief and becoming a fire commissioner.
He married his high-school sweetheart, Anne. Together, they had two daughters, Elizabeth and Emma Rose.
While working with the Lakeland Fire Department, he rescued a cat, which he gave to his wife, a cat-lover. They named the cat Ember. A few years later, he rescued a dog — which he wanted to keep, but the family wasn’t thrilled about. The new dog, Smokey, terrorized Ember at first. Because Anne knew her husband would do anything for her, she allowed the dog to stay.
If anything happens to me, I know that the dog will protect you, Anne’s husband told her.
It was only a few weeks before Sept. 11, 2001.
The elder Napolitano wrote his message to his son in several places at the site of the World Trade Center. For weeks, he returned every day to search for his son.
John Crisci’s body was recovered, as were those of many of the younger Napolitano’s friends. But there was no closure for the Napolitanos. Like many people killed in the attacks, Napolitano’s body was never found.
For his parents, it was hard to stay in the house in which their son grew up. Eventually they joined their daughter in Florida. They reside in Palm Beach County but own property in MetroWest.
They travel back to New York when they can. At first, Napolitano thought it would be hard to be away from the firehouses his son served at. But in Florida, he found an instant connection.
“When I stepped foot in the first firehouse, I felt like I was home,” he said. “The connection is countrywide.”
The family helps each other through the grief, but it is still hard. The parents find the Windermere Memorial provides solitude, one of the few places where they can visit together.
Napolitano’s youngest daughter recently had a baby, and among the joy of her birth, the pain is still real.
“The only way she’s going to know her wonderful uncle is through photographs,” Napolitano said. “She’ll never know the true him.”
Napolitano’s message to his son, written 15 years ago, was widely shared. A New York Post reporter wrote about him writing the message, and since then, the 9/11 Memorial Museum has featured the photograph in its archives.
His daughters have grown up as well. Elizabeth is preparing to graduate college, and Emma Rose, following in her father’s footsteps, is a volunteer firefighter with the Lakeland Fire Department.
In the time since 2001, Ember and Smokey have joined Napolitano up in heaven. But his legacy lives on.
Contact Jennifer Nesslar at [email protected].
WINDERMERE 9/11 MEMORIAL SERVICE
The town of Windermere will hold its annual 9/11 Memorial Service at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11, at the site of the 9/11 Memorial behind Town Hall, 520 Main St.
Joining Mayor Gary Bruhn will be other elected officials, local Boy Scouts, musical performances by members of the First Baptist Church of Windermere and families who lost loved one on that day. The keynote speaker will be John Napolitano, who lost his son, John, on 9/11.
“I can think of no better way to honor the innocent people who lost their lives that day than a memorial service at dusk before a piece of the World Trade Center that is now an everlasting memorial in their memory,” Bruhn said. “We have many families who lost loved ones that day who will join us, and we want to mark this 15th year after the tragedy with a very special event different than the others we have had. We are going to make this a moving event, and also an uplifting experience of hope and healing.”
Windermere is home to a black granite memorial that displays a 680-pound piece of steel from the debris of the World Trade Center.
For information, contact Bruhn at (407) 876-1732 or [email protected].
FORMER FDNY FIREFIGHTER JIMMY BROWN
Former FDNY firefighter Jimmy Brown is speaking at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept, 11, at The Church at Oak Level, 10564 Second Ave., Ocoee. The former atheist, who was on duty at Station 10 on Sept. 11, 2001, will share his experience and how he came to know God.
Doors open at 10 a.m.; seating is limited. For information, call (407) 656-1523.
CENTRAL FLORIDA BALLET
The Central Florida Ballet will commemorate the 15th anniversary attack on the World Trade Center with a performance of “9/11 An American Moment.” It will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11, at Northland, A Church Distributed, 2828 S. Bay St., No. 1, Eustis.
Tickets are $20 standard viewing area, $30 prime viewing area or $50 VIP. Tickets can be purchased online at centralfloridaballet.com or by calling (407) 849-9948.